Emancipation and Reconstruction
Freedom and Upheaval
When war broke out in 1861, African Americans were ready. Free African Americans flocked to join the Union army, but were rejected at first for fear of alienating pro-slavery sympathizers in the North and the Border States. With time, though, this position weakened, and African Americans, both free Northerners and escaped Southerners, were allowed to enlist. By the end of the war four years later, more than 186,000 African American soldiers had served, including several officers, making up 10 percent of the Union army. More than 38,000 lost their lives, and 21 were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, including Sergeant Major Christian Fleetwood. Years later, Fleetwood would write:
After each war, of 1776, of 1812, and of 1861, history repeats itself in the absolute effacement of remembrance of the gallant deeds done for the country by its brave black defenders and in their relegation to outer darkness. History further repeats itself in the fact that in every war so far known to this country, the first blood, and, in some cases, the last also, has been shed by the faithful Negro, and this in spite of all the years of bondage and oppression, and of wrongs unspeakable.
The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 marked the official beginning of freedom for enslaved African Americans in the Confederacy, although many did not hear of it for several months. However, much of the enslaved population of the South had been finding its way to freedom for some time, as African Americans walked off plantations and farms in vast numbers, many making their way to the Union lines for food and clothing. This slow-spreading freedom eventually slowed the Confederate economy and helped guarantee its defeat at the hands of the Union.
With the end of the war, the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution provided freedom for all African Americans in the United States. This freedom came, however, during a time of great national disruption, during which African Americans faced hard times and an uncertain future. Most had been left penniless by the war, and some had to avoid attacks by returning Confederates. Many tens of thousands began traveling throughout the South in search of long-lost family members, searches that often took years. Most important, the structure of the nation had been reordered dramatically, and it would take decades for the aftershocks of this transformation to fully work themselves out. African Americans were on the fault lines of that process.
The chaos of the postwar years was met, however, by a tremendous wave of African American organization. Education, long denied to African Americans in the South, became an especially impassioned cause. African American teachers helped found new schools operated by the federal Freedmen's Bureau, and brought free public education to African Americans in the South for the first time. By 1870, there were more than 240,000 pupils in more than 4,000 schools. Howard University, Fisk University, and Hampton Institute were also founded during this period.
The change with perhaps the greatest transformative potential, however, was African Americans' new participation in electoral politics. In 1870 the 15th Amendment was ratified, which guaranteed all males the right to vote, regardless of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." Within a few years, every Southern state legislature had African American members, and 11 African Americans had been elected to the U.S. Congress by 1875. In this regard, at least, the nation's political identity appeared to have changed for good.
Many of the victories of the postwar years were quickly withdrawn, however, and many of the worst aspects of the slave system returned to the former Confederacy. Federal troops left the region in 1877, and with them went much of the North's interest in the well-being of the freed slaves. Former Confederates soon returned to power and enacted grandfather clauses and other statutes that rescinded African American voting rights, along with many others.
Soon, African Americans in many Southern states were forbidden to vote, to testify in court against a European American, to enroll in school, to travel freely, to disobey an order, or to leave a job without permission. In many states, any African American traveling alone could be arrested, sentenced to forced labor, and even rented out to private employers by local or state authorities. Even African Americans who remained free of the law quickly became prisoners of debt, as landowners implemented a sharecropping system that guaranteed that workers would never turn a profit on their land.
New codes of social segregation also came into being, as European and African Americans were forced into separate accommodations to an extent even greater than during slavery. This harsh social order, sometimes known as "Jim Crow", was enforced by new vigilante organizations, including the Ku Klux Klan, which terrorized African Americans and tortured and killed those who violated the new codes. Lynching skyrocketed, peaking in 1892, when 161 African Americans were murdered by mobs.
For all the tyranny and hardship of the postwar years, however, they laid the foundation for tremendous changes to come. In the next century, African Americans would seize the national agenda as they had never done before.
For more information on the postwar years, visit African American Odyssey: Reconstruction and Its Aftermath.